Research and Development

Victorian Merino breeder talks of ‘ghosts’ and opportunities

Terry Sim, September 6, 2016
Tom Silcock

Tom Silcock

THE Merino industry’s “ghosts” and opportunities got an airing in a comprehensive 2016 Mac Troup Memorial Oration by western Victorian wool grower and stud breeder Tom Silcock.

In a 40-minute presentation Mr Silcock gave the Grassland Society of Southern Australia conference crowd in Hamilton, Victoria, last week gave a personal insight into Australian wool industry history.

This included living through the aborted Reserve Price Scheme that preceded today’s orderly wool auction marketing system, with Mr Silcock reflecting that farmers could not force their products when there was no demand.

“You can’t force produce onto an unwanting market, without wrecking it,” he said.

The current chairman of the Australian Merino Sire Evaluation Association and co-principal of The Mountain Dam Merino stud said the fortunes of the sheep industry, including fluctations in demand and supply of wool and sheep meat, along with mill feedback, had led to massive waves of influence on genetic selection. He said some breeders initially resisted objective wool measurement, but he believed all selection systems — skin principles, traditional classing and measurement-focussed methods — including sire evaluation, genomics and now the Merino Lifetime Productivity Project, were capable of delivering results for breeders.

Industry must face its challenges

Mr Silcock said to skip over such issues as mulesing, footrot and Ovine Johne’s Disease is to avoid the Merino industry’s challenges.

Historically we should be ashamed of our industry’s responses to these challenges, with scant regard to the ramifications of decisions.

Mr Silcock said many breeders’ liveliehoods and their flocks have been crucified as poor OJD and footrot policies have been implemented.

“Families have been emotionally destroyed, leading in the worst case to suicide.

The Merino breeder needs to be as tough as the sheep that they run, but we need nationally scientifically sound polices that govern our dealings with these challenging issues – not emotionally-driven governance.

Mr Silcock said the unscientific OJD restrictions that were in place in Western Australia, but still remain in place in South Australia today “are as crazy as those imposing them”.

“As happened in Western Australia, commonsense and science will eventually win, but yet with our South Australian friends.”

Mr Silcock said footrot remained a “cancer” in the Merino industry, made worse by some strains only showing up in sheep moved to wetter, warmer climates. But he said with careful planning and stringent controls it can be eradicated and new sheep tag technology that assess movement could be a new tool for footrot management.

Opportunities and threats

Drones, walk-over-weighing and pedigree matching, drones, satellite pasture imaging, DNA-based genomics and virtual fencing would also play parts in the future Merino industry, he said.

Mr Silcock said mulesing had blown up to be an international animal ethical issue.

“It is a shame that the vocal critics, who have promoted the outcry, are not really concerned about our Merino’s welfare.

“We have bred sheep that don’t need mulesing and plenty is having to assist in fly strike prevention,” he said.

“Non-mulesing will be a part of our future Merino industry.”

Mr Silcock said early lamb survival is on the industry’s big issues and more needs to be done to ensure that higher conception rates deliver more lambs.

“My ideal is to breed, manage, grow and harvest wool to meet a mill’s specification, on a forward contract basis.

“The wool industry is still one of the best clean green industries, producing a natural fibre with its unique qualities,” he said.

“Our Merino meat values, once discounted, are now beginning to be valued equally for their true carcase qualities and superior flavours.

“The Australian Merino is entering a new era of excitement with a great profit potential.”


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  1. Duncan Banks, September 9, 2016

    Congratulations to Tom Silcock on his comments. Why is it so hard to understand that when you measure your Merinos, the more productive ones are plainer?

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